Center profile: UC Davis Center for Population Biology

Diverse Disciplines, Healthy Science

6/11/2012

Ask a researcher in the Center for Population Biology what the strength of this cross-college research group is, and the answer invariably mentions collaboration with faculty from other departments.

Indeed, the center that studies diversity is also structured around the concept.

Founded in 1989, CPB joins geneticists, ecologists, microbiologists, geologists, and plant scientists whose research focuses on understanding both how the diversity of life evolved and the consequences of losing it. Its approximately 100 faculty, postdoctoral scientists and graduate researchers span the College of Biological Sciences, the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, and the College of Letters and Science.

“Everyone in the center shares an interest in understanding the diversity of life,” Director Jay Stachowicz says. When diversity is lost, “many ecosystems become less productive and more susceptible to invasion by outside species. The future becomes less predictable.”

For example, Stachowicz’ own lab studies the consequences of biodiversity loss for marine ecosystems. The lab’s work generally shows that diversity—whether it’s predators in the kelp forest, species in tidepools, or genes within seagrasses—all contribute to the health and stability of marine ecosystems.

“Concrete evidence suggests that consistency yields of fisheries is lower when you have fewer species in a community,” Stachowicz says. “High biodiversity in the sea is associated with higher fisheries catches and more rapid recovery from overfishing, relative to areas with low biodiversity.”

Stachowicz likens maintaining a healthy ecosystem to managing a stock portfolio. “If you put all your money into one stock that’s great, as long as it wasn’t Enron,” he says. “The reason you diversify your portfolio is to sort of hedge your bets against an uncertain future. Ecosystem diversity is a bet hedge against uncertainty; you never know which species will play an important role coming down the pike.”

Such depth in the department itself is what makes the Center for Population Biology one of the premier research groups in its field.

“Davis has one of the best groups of Evolutionary Biologists and Ecologists in world, spread across a wide range of departments,” says Assistant Professor of Evolution and Ecology Graham Coop. “This group owes a lot of its success to the unity provided by CPB.”

“There's really nowhere else in the world where I, as a human geneticist, could have such a broad range of vibrant collaborations,” Coop continues. His research projects include teaming up with UC Davis plant scientists to study the genetics of a wild relative of maize, and local adaptation and the response to climate change in pines.

Among the center’s current newsmakers is Michael Turelli, distinguished professor in the UC Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology and the 2012 Faculty Research Lecture Award winner for his work with a bacterium that may stop the spread of dengue fever. Dengue is a potentially fatal illness that affects roughly 2.5 billion people—more than 40 percent of the global population. Work by Turelli and colleagues on transmission of a bacterium across generations of fruit flies leads to reduced growth of fruit fly populations. They are now piloting programs to control mosquitos that spread dengue fever in the same sort of way.
His research, Turelli says, “is a great example of being curious, wanting to understand something in nature and discovering that this understanding has important practical applications.”

Many CPB faculty also incorporate cutting-edge technology into their research. Associate Professor of Evolution and Ecology, Gail Patricelli, studies populations of threatened sage grouse by using robotic birds she has created. Sage grouse call and display in elaborate ways during mating and there is worry that noise pollution from oil and gas exploration will harm them. Patricelli’s robot birds interact with real ones so she can examine the effects of different types of background noise on interactions among potential mates.

Professor Jonathan Eisen credits CPB’s top-notch reputation with attracting him to UC Davis from the East Coast. Eisen’s own research focuses on understanding the genomic basis for how microorganisms, for example bacteria, interact with other species to lead to new functions. “Davis’ strength in evolution and ecology and population biology drew me here,” he says. “I am a big fan of interdisciplinary science, and the fact that CPB spans so many departments, schools and areas was very appealing.”

One unique way CPB supports such collaborations is by hiring one postdoctoral fellow each year. Candidates design research projects bridging the work of at least two CPB faculty from different disciplines.

“Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are our pride and joy. We select from a really top group and once they get here, our vision is to give them the academic freedom to realize their potential,”
Stachowicz says.

In addition to their research, the postdocs mentor graduate students and offer workshops based on their own skills, whether that is a new lab technique, statistical technique, or teaching style.

“Historically we’ve had two postdocs at any one time, serving two-year rolling appointments,” Stachowicz says. “But right now we are at the point where we’ll have to go to one at a time unless we are able to find other funding.”

As with any ecosystem, Stachowicz says that this loss of diversity will hurt the center.

“Postdoc positions enrich research programs by bringing in really bright people who are up on the latest tools and techniques and giving them the time to really use those tools in a way that faculty unfortunately can’t,” he says, referring to the teaching load that faculty share.

“The strongest innovations come from new scientists. The most exciting things that go on in my lab happen when I get a new graduate or postdoc who has a very different perspective,” he adds. “This program is about bringing in new hot-shots who are doing the most exciting science out there and giving them the room and the flexibility to realize their amazing vision and intellect.”

How will the Center for Population Biology maintain its diversity in an era of increasingly tight budgets? Stachowicz hopes that the center’s successes will motivate private donors to help support future research, by giving funds for everything from small student grants to larger endowments.

“Even modest gifts may allow a student enough independence to pursue a research project—travel to their field sites, hire an undergraduate to assist in the lab for a summer,” he says. “Those sorts of individual chunks can make a huge difference in a graduate student’s career, just by enabling him or her to get enough data to then apply for a larger grant through some outside competition.”

For now, his primary goal is to generate on-going funds for that second postdoctoral position, a key ingredient to maintaining diverse collaborations in the Center for Population Biology.